Bolton Hill community leaders pleaded with Baltimore zoning officials Tuesday to prevent a fraternal lodge from holding late-night parties, saying that the raucous gatherings are destroying the character of the neighborhood.
City Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents the area, clutched a sheaf of fliers for Hiram Grand Lodge events that featured scantily clad women, promises of "top shelf liquor" and names such as "Love & Lust Pre-Valentine's Day event."
"We're asking you to end these activities because it's killing a great neighborhood," said Cole. "It's not a community center. It has become a nightclub."
The lodge is currently zoned as a residential property, and authorities say it has violated the zoning code by renting the facility for large parties. Lodge members are seeking a change in zoning status that would allow it to host some private events, such as weddings.
Lester Adams, an attorney for the lodge in the 1200 block of Eutaw Place, said the board of directors had recently voted to cease holding events "that go on to 2 a.m."
"We want to be able to continue to do weddings and cotillions up until about midnight," Adams said.
The lodge does not have a liquor license, and is barred from charging a cover or charging for alcohol. But police, Cole and community leaders testified that they had witnessed parties that violated those provisions.
"I don't believe the members of the lodge know this is happening," said Cole, gesturing to the gray-haired members of the lodge who attended the hearing.
Members of the lodge, an affiliate of the Masons, built the multi-purpose center 12 years ago with $900,000 in state bond money, according to testimony and state documents. Since the lodge is a nonprofit, it does not pay property taxes.
Adams said that "98 percent" of the events the lodge hosted over the past year were job fairs, summer camps and graduation ceremonies that did not trouble the community, a remark that drew titters from the several dozen Bolton Hill residents who packed the zoning board hearing.
Thomas Hardnett, the lodge director, said that he and other staff members tried to enforce prohibitions on loud and late gatherings, but some party promoters ignored them.
"People said, 'You can't tell me that the party I paid for will have to end at a particular time,'" he said.
Community members and police testified that late-night parties at the lodge could be heard for more than a block away.
Cole said that lodge leaders had pledged last month to stop holding evening activities at the lodge until Tuesday's hearing. Less than a week later, police broke up a party there, Cole said.
Central District commander Maj. Dennis Smith testified that he arrived at the lodge, accompanied by vice squad members, in January after neighbors complained. The party promoter was charging a cover, and the promoter was a fellow officer, Smith said.
Peter Merles, executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District, which includes Bolton Hill, said the park outside the lodge was frequently strewn with "liquor bottles," "cups with alcohol" and "some other very unsavory items" after parties.
Cole said the lodge also violated a community agreement by parking cars in a lot that lodge leaders had pledged to make a garden.
Geoffrey W. Washington, chair of the Board of Zoning and Municipal Appeals, said the board typically takes three to four weeks to issue an opinion on a "complex matter" such as the lodge.